shakWilliam Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio
William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio

By tradition, Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day April 23rd 1564, 457 years ago. He died on April 23rd 1616 at age 52. Cervantes died on the same day. The death date is given by the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on Avon where he was buried. His baptismal record also survives at the same church and is on April 26th 1564. but we don’t actually know when he was born.

Anne Shakespeare would have ‘taken to her chamber’ about four weeks before the due date. The windows or shutters would have been fastened as fresh air was thought to be bad for the birthing process. Female friends and relatives would come round, and the room would be decorated with fine carpets, hangings, silver plates and fine ornaments. It was felt that external events could influence the birth, and any shocks or horrors were thought to be the cause of deformities and anomalies, so a calm lying-in room was clearly a good idea.

When labour began female friends, relatives and the midwife were called to help out. A caudle of spiced wine or beer would be given to the mother to strengthen her through the process. Today the maternal mortality rate is 7 per 100,000. An estimate for the 16th Century is 1500 per 100,000. So most women would have heard of or attended the birth of women who had died during or following children birth. There were also no forceps so if a baby were stuck and could not be manually manipulated out, then the only way forward was to get a surgeon to use hooks to dismember the baby to save the life of the mother. Doctors were not normally in attendance, but could be called in emergency,

Immediately after washing the baby was swaddled. The swaddling was often very tight and could affect the baby’s growth, and might have affected the learning process as movement of hands are now considered very important in the early learning process. Swaddling lasted eight to nine months, and only went out of fashion after Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote against the practice.

Detail of tomb of Alexander Denton and his first wife Anne Willison, and her baby dressed in swaddling clothes Photo Wikipedia Hugh Llewelyn

Puerperal fever killed many women after successful childbirth for example Queen Jane Seymour who died after 5 days. During these dangerous early days the mother was kept in a dark room, and then, perhaps three days after birth friends were invited to celebrate ‘upsitting’ when the mother was no longer confined to bed. This is when christening would take place.

Edward VI was christened to a huge audience in the chapel at Hampton Court three days after his birth. Licensed midwives could baptise newborn babies provided they used the correct wording and informed the Church so that the registration could be properly reported. Thomas Cromwell was responsible for the law in 1538 which insisted on a parish register to record weddings, christenings, and funerals. The law was reaffirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1558 and registers had to be stored in a locked chest in the Church. (In 1597, the records had to be on parchment not paper, and in 1603 the chest had to have three locks!).

If the Christening were in the church the mother might not be there as she was expected to stay in her chamber for another week or so.

A week or a few weeks later the mother would be ‘churched.’ This was a thanks-giving ceremony, although Puritans did not like the idea that it could be considered a purification ceremony.

Breast feeding would last a year or so and many high status women choose to use a wet-nurse, but there was a real concern that the wet nurse was suitable as it was believed that the breast milk was important for the babies development both physically and temperamentally. Poor children who lost their mothers were very unlikely to survive as, without breast milk, the baby would be fed pap – bread soaked in cow’s milk.

Thanks very much to Alison Sim’s book ‘The Tudor Household’ for a lot of the above.


The caption above tells two of his alleged puns, but in between the one about Angles/Angels and AElla/Alleluia he also punned on the name of Aella’s kingdom – Deira in Northumberland,saying he would save them from the wroth of God (de ira in Latin).

He sent St Augustine to Canterbury to convert the English. It is possible to argue that this encounter is why we are called English, because St Augustine was sent to set up the Church of the Angles, or the Anglish/English Church, not the Saxon Church. Eventually, the term became a relatively neutral term that the various shades of Germanic peoples in Britain could unite under.

The mission was sent in AD 597 and Pope Gregory died in AD 604.

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

My next walks – virtual and guided are here:


St. Mary-at-Hill, by Christopher Wren, photo K Flude

So, having finished a walk around Chaucer’s London for a mother and her two very bright home educated children. I had to walk back over London Bridge and through the City to Aldgate where Chaucer used to live (and where I had parked my bike).

I took a couple of short cuts which I don’t usually take although often in and around this area. St Mary in Lovat Lane was open so I went in to find this amazing relief.

Judgement Day Relief Sculpture by workshop of Joshua Marshall c 1670

The panel beside it suggests its a sculpture of hope. Well yes, of sorts, if by hope you mean, facing your maker. It represents scenes from the end of days from the Book of Revelation. Jesus stands on a skull, trampling upon Satan, and below the heavenly clouds the Archangels, direct the newly risen from the coffins and graveyards to the Day of Judgement.

I then went past St Margaret Pattens, another Wren Church and was delighted to see a little display on pattens – overshoes worn to keep shoes clean. My ancestor was a beadle for the Patten makers.


The Kalendar of Shepherds – French 15th Century

Named after Mars, the God of War, March was the beginning of the campaign season, and the army was prepared, and ceremonies held to Mars. The Salii, twelve youths dressed in archaic fighting costumes led a procession singing the Carmen Saliare. Ovid reports in his poem Fasti (3.259–392).

The illustration shows that in Pisces and early Ares preparation was still the main order of the farming day, clearing out the moats, and preparing the fruit trees. Lambing is also increasing in number.

It is also the Feast of St David, the patron saint of Wales, who lived in the sixth century AD. Little that is known about him is contemporary but he was an abbot-bishop and important for the independence of the Welsh Christian tradition.

This year it is also Shrove Tuesday, the day we eat up all our surplus food so that we can begin out lenten fast and turn out mind to repentance. Traditionally, pancakes with lemon and sugar but a day of excess before the 40 days of restraint.

Kalendar of Shepherds.

Shrove Tuesday was traditional for football games in the days before football had any rules to speak of. It was a wild game in which teams tried to get a bladder from one end of town to the other, or one side of a field to the other. At Chester the Mayor created the Chester Races on the Roodee, the island where the Shrove Tuesday game was held , specifically to stop the rowdy game.

Royal Asbourne Shrovetide Football


Coltsfoot by Andreas Trepte Wikipedia

The daisy-like plant is flowering about now and Gerard’s Herbal of 1633 suggests that the ‘fumes of the dried leaves taken through a funnel’ is good for those with coughs and shortness of breath. He suggests that it is smoked like tobacco and it’ mightly prevaileth.’

This idea, Mrs Grieves in her herbal, says is endorsed by’ Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny and Boyle’. and is ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs’.

Also Violets and crocii are coming out. The crocus represents many things but according to ‘White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.’ Ovid tells the story of Crocus and Smilax in the Metaphoses: ‘how Crocus and his beloved Smilax were changed into tiny flowers. All these stories I will pass by and will charm your minds with a tale that is pleasing because new.’

Violets have been used as cosmetics by the Celts, to moderate anger by the Athenians, for insomnia and loved because of their beauty and fragrant. They have been symbols of death for the young, and used as garlands, nosegays posies which Gerard says are ‘delightful’.

Snowdrop, Crocus and Silver Birch circle in Haggerston Park. Photo Kevin Flude

Blossom is also coming out in London, a little early and following an earlier false spring when Cherry Blossom came out. Blackthorn (I think) is coming out in profusion in my local park.

White blossom in February in Haggerston Park. Blackthorn thinks photographer Kevin Flude

The 20th was the beginning of Pisces and also Sexagesima Sunday, which is the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday and it a time when we should be reflecting on our sins and lifestyle before we enter Lent.

Old Moore’sAlmanac for February suggests questions will be raised about the future of the Monarchy and that ‘Russia is entering a period of major restructuring’!

23rd February is ‘Terminalia, the Roman day for setting land boundaries.


For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thynke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
Parliament of Fowls Geoffrey Chaucer

This is the first reference to St Valentines as a romantic day. There are at least three Saint Valentines who were martyred in the Roman period and their relics are scattered around Europe (have a look at this National Geographic article for the full S.P.) But until Chaucer no one seemed to link any of them with love.

Chaucer’s poem suggests one possible route to the link with romance. This is about the time when birds pair off – if they want to have their chicks at optimal time, then they need to get going before spring has really sprung.

This is my translation.

For this was St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird came there to chose their mate.
Of every type that men think may
And that so huge a noise did they make
That earth and see and tree and every lake
So full was, that hardly was there space
For to stand so full was the place.

Magpies are my favourite love bird, because you see one, and then look around and you soon seen the pair. There is an old tradition that you are supposed to say

‘Hello, Mr Magpie! How’s your wife’

and its good luck if you see her and not if you don’t. But I normally do. As to the seven, ten, or thirteen magpie in various versions. They always seem in pairs to me.

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,
Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

For details of the versions of this poem click here:


Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán FROM wikipedia
Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán – she is carrying her severed breasts

She is a Sicilian Saint, who refused to sleep with a powerful Roman in the third Century AD, and was imprisoned, tortured, had her breasts pincered off, still refused to sleep with him and died in prison. She is remembered by cakes shaped as breasts eaten on her feast day of February 5th.

breast shaped cakes called Minne di Sant'Agata, a typical Sicilian sweet
Minne di Sant’Agata, Sicilian (Wikipedia)

‘She is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, and bakers, and is invoked against fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.’


It is suggested that illustrations of her severed breasts led the bell founders and bakers to mistakenly adopt her as patron saint as they thought the platter shown in illustrations of the Saint bore bells or loaves not her actual breasts. (You couldn’t make this up could you?).

If you have been reading this blog you will know of my concern about the way the early church seemed to revel in giving its martyr’s not only very gruesome deaths, but also very varied and unique modes of death. I’m wondering how this came about. My guess, is that, the rewards of having a popular saint as patron was so important to churches that they embellished early stories in order to encourage more veneration. Perhaps they also saw a market in specialising in occupation and health groups. You might call this the supply side. On the demand side medieval guilds sought divine protection, and those suffering from ailments needed consolation. So a saint who was a virgin could command a loyal general audience, (think Dads and Mums and young women), her embellished story would attract more specialist audiences such as women; young women; virgins; nursing mothers; wet nurses; women and families with health issues concerned with breasts; people who live near a volcano, and with a bit of creative confusion can also attract bell founders and bakers.

Or am I being cynical? But really why such variety in the cruelty? I personally find it sickening. I mean writing this, and the previous St Blaize post makes me feel slightly physically sick. And it is repeated in virtually all early martyrdom stories.

The fact would normally have been that the martyr was taken to the local amphitheatre and beheaded. Although, now I come to think of it, executions in the Roman period were part of the entertainment industry, and often had theatrical elements to them.

Any ideas let me know.

St Agatha's Church, Kingston on Thames
black and white illustration
St Agatha’s Church, Kingston on Thames

Sunday, I’m doing Guided and Virtual Walks on the Archaeology of London Bridge.

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

My next walks – virtual and guided are here:


19th Century illustration of St Blaise’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey

The Blessing of St Blaise helps protect the throat. Blessed candles are made into a cross, and these are touched against the throat. Blaise is thought to be an Armenian Bishop, martyred in the persecution of the Emperor Licinius. A story was told that on his way to martyrdom he cured a boy who had a fish bone stuck in his throat. The early Church seems to have had a gruesome need for all its Saints to be martyred in a unique way, and Blaise is said to have been pulled apart by wool-combers irons, before being beheaded. Hence his association with throats and sheep specifically, the patron saint of wool-combers. But as his hagiography suggests he was a physician he is one of the go-to saints for diseases in humans and animals.

Wikipedia tells me that Combing was a regular form of torture. So, perhaps St Blaise was not pulled apart with wool combs. But let Wikipedia talk for its self:

Combing, sometimes known as carding[1] (despite carding being a completely different process) is a sometimes-fatal form of torture in which iron combs designed to prepare wool and other fibres for woolen spinning are used to scrape, tear, and flay the victim’s flesh.
Wool combs black and white illustration
Internet Archive book illustrations collection on Flickr. (from wovember see below)

His cult came to Britain when King Richard I was ship wrecked on Crusade. Richard was helped by Bishop Bernard of Ragusa where Richard was washed up. When the Bishop was deposed he sought sanctuary in Britain and was made Bishop of Carlisle where he promoted the cult of Blaise. Several churches in the UK founded churches named for him. Westminster Abbey has a chapel dedicated to him.

St Blazey in Cornwall is named after him (and his Church) and celebrates him by a procession of a ram and a wicker effigy of St Blaise through the streets. Milton, in Berkshire, dedicated its Church to St Blaise, probably because the village’s wealth depended on sheep. The village held a feast on the third Sunday after Trinity, and the day after held the Tadpole Revels at Milton Hall. Tadpole is thought to be a corruption from the word ‘Tod’ which means cleaned wool.

One of London’s oldest guilds is the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, first mentioned in 1180, when fined, for operating without a license, by Richard 1’s dad, Henry II.

In the spirit of St Blaise here is some advice for care of your throats.

Good for the throat honey, sugar, butter with a little salt, liquorice, to sup soft eggs, hyssop, a mean manner of eating and drinking and sugar candy. Evil for the throat: mustard, much lying on the breast, pepper, anger, things roasted, lechery, much working, too much rest, much drink, smoke of incense, old cheese and all sour things are naughty for the throat.

The Kalendar of Shepherde 1604

Sources: The Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightly, Woolly Saints, Britannica, Wovember

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

My next walks – virtual and guided are here:


From the Illustrated London Almanac

The day Jesus is presented to the Temple as a young boy. jesus is prophesied to be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and so the day is celebrated by lighting candles. Clearing a festival marking the lengthening days

If it is cold and icy, the worst of the winter is over, if it is clear and fine, the worst of the winter is to come.

Its also the official end of all things Christmas.

Robert Herrick has a 17h Century poem which expresses this.

Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

In Persuasion, Jane Austen’s best novel, the moany Mary Musgrove writes a typically FOMO letter which shows how Christmas continued to February 1st.

“”February 1st Letter from Mary Musgrove to Anne Elliot.

“My dear Anne,–I make no apology for my silence, because I know how little people think of letters in such a place as Bath. You must be a great deal too happy to care for Uppercross, which, as you well know, affords little to write about. We have had a very dull Christmas; Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove have not had one dinner party all the holidays. I do not reckon the Hayters as anybody. The holidays, however, are over at last: I believe no children ever had such long ones. I am sure I had not. The house was cleared yesterday, except of the little Harvilles; but you will be surprised to hear they have never gone home. Mrs. Harville must be an odd mother to part with them so long. I do not understand it. They are not at all nice children, in my opinion; but Mrs. Musgrove seems to like them quite as well, if not better, than her grandchildren.
What dreadful weather we have had! It may not be felt in Bath, with your nice pavements; but in the country it is of some consequence. I have not had a creature call on me since the second week in January, except Charles Hayter, who had been calling much oftener than was welcome. Between ourselves, I think it a great pity Henrietta did not remain at Lyme as long as Louisa; it would have kept her a little out of his way. The carriage is gone to-day, to bring Louisa and the Harvilles to-morrow. We are not asked to dine with them, however, till the day after, Mrs. Musgrove is so afraid of her being fatigued by the journey, which is not very likely, considering the care that will be taken of her; and it would be much more convenient to me to dine there to-morrow. I am glad you find Mr. Elliot so agreeable, and wish I could be acquainted with him too; but I have my usual luck: I am always out of the way when any thing desirable is going on; always the last of my family to be noticed. What an immense time Mrs. Clay has been staying with Elizabeth! Does she never mean to go away? But perhaps if she were to leave the room vacant, we might not be invited. Let me know what you think of this. I do not expect my children to be asked, you know. I can leave them at the Great House very well, for a month or six weeks. I have this moment heard that the Crofts are going to Bath almost immediately; they think the Admiral gouty. Charles heard it quite by chance; they have not had the civility to give me any notice, or of offering to take anything. I do not think they improve at all as neighbours. We see nothing of them, and this is really an instance of gross inattention. Charles joins me in love, and everything proper.
Yours affectionately,.”

Christmas at Uppercross In Persuasion (Chapter 18)

Snowdrops are also called Candlemass Bells. Snowpierces and Death Flowers. The latter because they grow in Churchyards, were the same colour as children’s mourning clothes, and this protected them from being picked as it was felt that to do so was ill-omened.

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